PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Mummers Parade, a long-running and extravagant Philadelphia New Year's celebration that has faced criticism for its lack of diversity and occasional racial insensitivity, will have a performance division specifically for ethnic groups for the first time next year, organizers said.
The change will help ensure the 115-year-old tradition — often called the city's version of Mardi Gras — continues and thrives, Mummers spokesman George Badey said.
Among the new participants is the San Mateo Carnavalero, a Mexican heritage organization.
"The Mummers aren't being dragged kicking and screaming into this," Badey said Tuesday. "The Mummers are full partners in this quest to make the parade more diverse."
The decision comes after the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations convened a meeting this year with several Mummers representatives and city parade director Leo Dignam. The commission has received complaints about racist and xenophobic skits in the parade, according to executive director Rue Landau.
"The folks who came to the meeting were very receptive," Landau said. "They want to make change."
The word "mummer" comes from the German word for "mask." Tens of thousands of spectators turn out each Jan. 1 to see the outrageously costumed brigades march through the heart of the city. The garish outfits feature expensive feathers and sequins, and clubs' routines often include huge props rolled down the street for periodic performances.
Club members have traditionally been white men; women weren't allowed in the parade until a few decades ago.
And though the city long ago banned blackface, echoes remain. Mummers' routines in 2013 included a minstrel theme and a Delhi-based call center. Last year, a member of a brigade known as "wenches" carried a sign saying "Wench Lives Matter," a parody of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Both participation and attendance have recently dropped off. Many clubs have had problems fundraising and recruiting the younger generation.
"In order for the parade to survive, they really have to reach out to new members," Dignam said.
To that end, he's contacted several ethnic organizations about marching this year. He expects a more formal application process to evolve.
Monica Orozco, spokeswoman for the Carnavalero, said the costumed performance group has a strong fan base in the city and hopes to attract more than 1,000 additional spectators to the parade.
"We are super-excited," she said Wednesday. "We just want to participate and embrace the tradition."
This story has been corrected to show the name of the agency is the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, not the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission.
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